Tamales have been a staple among Latin American countries for centuries at this point. This iconic food is made from corn masa, stuffed or mixed with various ingredients, and steamed after it is wrapped in a husk of some kind. It is usually treated as a holiday food, especially during Christmas time, where families often gather to cook large batches of them at once. Because tamales have been around for such a long time, and their influence has spread far in that time, many cultures have found different ways of preparing them. Many in the California area are most familiar with the original Mexican style tamales, which include the masa, a filling made of chicken, beef, or pork, wrapped in a corn husk. However, traveling down south towards Latin America or across the seas will introduce tamales with completely different flavor profiles and ingredients.
One of the ingredients most often changed in the tamal is the husk. Because corn is not native or widely available everywhere, many other cultures choose instead to use plantain or banana leaves. In comparison, this results in giving the tamales a sweeter or bolder taste than a corn husk. Numerous countries use these leaves instead, such as Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, etc.
Another aspect of the tamale that is changed often is obviously the filling. Just like with the husk, the filling changes wildly for each culture to best suit their preferences or agriculture. Vegetables themselves are something that are not generally used in the California area, but are present in Costa Rican tamales, where they routinely include carrots or peas.
Puerto Rico developed what they called the pasteles. Very similar to the tamale, it is made with masa developed from squash instead of corn. It is then filled with mashed viandas, which are root vegetables mixed with plantains, or a mixture of beans and vegetables like malanga and olives. All of this, when combined with the banana leaf wrapping, result in a sweeter tasting tamale. The pastel is also something most often consumed during the Christmas season, which is why the sweeter pastel is more popular than the savory one available.
Shockingly, tamales have even crossed over the Pacific to the Philippines. The tamal was most likely introduced to this region through one of the passes from the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade, which began in 1565 and consisted of Spanish ships sailing from the Philippines to Mexico to trade objects. This pattern continued for years, with Asia-Pacific researcher Lucio Blanco Pitlo III stating it “paved the way for the widest possible exchange of material goods, cultural traditions and practices, knowledge and belief systems and peoples for some 250 years, and it served as a formidable bridge between East and West.”
Because of this Spanish influence, the Filipino culture eventually developed their own type of tamale, though the ingredients used are a lot more different than those used in Latin American. These tamales are called “Pampanga’s Tamales” or “Bobotu.” Instead of the masa harina, an ingredient most commonly shared across the Latin countries, the bobotu calls for a rice flour base. The rice flour is mixed with coconut milk until it reaches a similar texture as masa. However, part of the mixture is then mixed with peanut butter and spices, resulting in an orange and a white masa mixture. Possible fillings for the bobotu includes nuts, seafood, chicken, and eggs, which are placed into the orange mixture, which is then laid atop the white mixture. All of this is wrapped in a plantain leaf and steamed just like a tamale.
The saying “there’s more than one way to break an egg” is something that can also apply to tamales. Because of their simple makeup, it leaves them very open to customization. In fact, many could argue that the customization factor is what has made tamales last as long as they have and be so delicious, as any family can come along and make their own favorite tamale.
This wide type of variety is exactly what the second Long Beach International Tamale Festival is aiming to capture. This festival will also include a Homemade Tamale Contest, so anyone interested can come along and find out if their unique tamale is truly the best of the best.